Thursday, September 10, 2015

'The Visit' earns more scorn than cheers

M. Night Syhamalan fails to recapture horror magic.

The Visit offers yet another variation on the nauseatingly familiar "found footage" ploy, straining to give it a fresh spin.

In this case, a 15-year-old makes a documentary about a visit to grandparents she's never before met.

Director M. Night Shyamalan leavens latest plunge into horror film with a bit of macabre comedy, but The Visit is no triumph for Shyamalan, who's making a return trip to the arena where modestly budgeted chillers live.

The movie may be seen by some as a restoration of a career that has dipped and sagged since Shyamalan's breakthrough with 1999's The Sixth Sense.

Don't count me in that group. I suppose it's possible to argue that The Visit represents an improvement after duds such as After Earth and The Last Airbender, but we're talking about an awkward leap over a low bar.

The Visit contains a trademark Shyamalan surprise twist, but the movie is neither funny or scary enough to thrive, primarily because it has no credible psychological underpinnings.

The Visit serves up standard horror tropes, while trying to convince us that it's not really following a familiar blueprint. At times, it tries to goof on ploys we know too well: warnings to stay out of creepy basements and such.

The movie begins when a single mother (Kathryn Hahn) sends her two children -- 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) to visit their grandparents.

The catch: Hahn's character left home when she was 19, and hasn't talked to her parents in 16 years. When Grandma and Grandpa first expressed a desire to meet their grandchildren, Mom resisted. She ultimately agreed because the kids thought it was a good idea and because Mom wanted to take a trip with her latest boyfriend.

For no good reason other than lame comic relief, Tyler fancies himself a rapper. When he and camera-toting Rebecca arrive at their grandparents' rural home, they quickly learn that Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a couple of weird old coots.

I won't describe all of the weirdness, but you should know that one of them involves Pop Pop's penchant for storing his dirty adult diapers in a shed. And, no, that's not the last use to which Shyamalan puts those filthy diapers.

For her part, Nana sometimes runs around the house at night sans clothing, either vomiting or clawing at the walls.

All of these bizarre shenanigans are sloughed off as typical behavior from old people, a suggestion that's both unbelievable and offensive.

OK, there are some strange amusements here (Pop Pop's commitment to highly competitive games of Yahtzee, for example) and a couple of well-presented jolts, which can't be described without adding spoilers.

But so what?

The movie's ending -- gross and violent -- goes way over-the-top before Shyamalan adds a quasi-dramatic coda, along with a supposedly comic footnote, both of which play like apologies for everything that we've already seen.

I've always liked Hahn, and she's quite good in the small role as Mom. But Hahn's minimal presence only served to remind me that the rest of this dumb movie has very little to offer.

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